Rhoderick Macleod, 2 Bn Seaforth Highlanders

[After basic training] the Etonian, several others from another squad and myself, were selected to go for officer training at 165 OCTU at Dunbar on the East Coast. Being the tallest of the draft and a lance corporal by that time, I was the right hand marker for the squad. Andy Drummond, the Regimental Sergeant Major, emerged from his office and inspected us. His first words of encouragement to us were unforgettable – “I knew that things in France were not going that well but Jesus they can not be this bad”. The time was just before Dunkirk.

165 Officer Cadet Training Unit at Dunbar, in common with similar establishments elsewhere, had the unenviable task of turning out officers for the rapidly expanding Army. The process was scheduled to take six months and was very hard work indeed. The assumption was that, although we all came from various infantry regiments and had been ‘trained’, we actually knew nothing and therefore had to start all over again with the simplest of drill movements. The barrack square was in the centre of Dunbar town and the local inhabitants enjoyed … watching us being chased around.

As Officer Cadets the instructors addressed us as “Sir”. One unfortunate ex-cavalryman once had the temerity to address our Company Sergeant Major as “Sgt-Major”. The bawled reply was that “Mr Whilloughby Sir, I’m Sir to you Sir and you are Sir to me Sir, and don’t you ever forget that.”

Fall of France

Our time at Dunbar coincided with the fall of France. As a result, we had to study and drill during daylight hours and then march off to the East Lothian beaches, man the coastal defences and act as first-line anti-invasion troops overnight. In the morning we were then expected to march back and appear neat and tidy for another day’s instruction. Our night-time post was defending Bellhaven beach, a stretch of sand several miles long. Had the enemy chosen to come we could have done little about it, for we had only 25 rounds each.

I have never been as fit at any time in my life before or since. The final exercise involved marching over 70 miles and fighting a rearguard against an ‘enemy’ who covered the same distance in SMT buses. What nearly killed us, however, was the brass band of the Sherwood Foresters who thought they would do us a favour and help us by playing us back into camp over the last stretch of five miles.

I only served in the Seaforths for a few months before fate took a hand again. We were then the senior battalion in 152 Brigade of the famous 51st Highland Division. Major General Sir Alan Cunningham commanded the reformed Division. One day, as one of the newly joined subalterns, I was told to report to Divisional Headquarters near Nairn. On arrival there I was interviewed by the General himself who told us that he was leaving to take over command as C in C East Africa and wanted some of his own subalterns to go out there with him, would we volunteer to go? Of course we said we would

After a week, we sailed again [after a journey around the Cape, to Durban] for Mombasa and Kenya. The only incident on this final leg of the journey was that early on the morning of our arrival in Mombasa harbour, a 19-year old subaltern in the Green Howards in the next cabin to me, who was engaged to a Yorkshire girl, shot himself. He believed he had been infected with VD while in Leeds.

Our draft of over a hundred subalterns had been sent to Nairobi as battle-replacements for the casualties expected in the campaign to recapture Ethiopia and Somalia from the Italians. However, such was the speed of General Cunningham’s advance that casualties were lighter than anyone had expected, and nobody seemed to know what to do with us.

Eventually I and a few others were told to report to the depot of the Northern Rhodesian Regiment at Lusaka in order to make up the officer strength of three Northern Rhodesian battalions that were being formed into the 27th (NR) Infantry Brigade there.

Journey by truck

The journey from Nairobi to Lusaka turned out to be by three-ton truck down the Great North Road. This at the time was a single-width dirt track down through Tanganyika. The distance from Nairobi was some 1,600 miles, which took our convoy of 30 vehicles exactly four weeks. Each day was spent either driving or waiting at a numerous river crossing. Part of the delay was caused by having to give way to the trucks of the South African Division on its way North. Another part was caused by the fact that owing to the rainy season the road surface became a skating rink after each hour. There were frequent waits, particularly at river crossings, for the flood waters to go down sufficiently so that we could get our trucks across.

There was a plus side to this experience. It introduced us to the vastness of Africa and its haunting beauty. It taught us to be self-reliant and resourceful, how to be comfortable while living rough on safari, how stunningly beautiful the African night sky is, and many other things.

Our duties [on arrival], apart from training, were interesting though what they contributed to the overall war effort is quite another matter. I spent a tour of duty with Pete Henley guarding the Victoria Falls bridge over the Zambezi. The railway from South Africa to the Copper Belt was vital to the whole war effort, for its single track carried copper, and once a week carried 1500 tons of explosive up to the mines. Thursdays, when these explosives were transported, was one of our busiest days, and the surrounding countryside [around] the bridge itself had to be searched. The potential enemy was the South African Nazi party (the Ossowa Brandwag), who did succeed in blowing up a train further south at a place called Plumtree in Southern Rhodesia. While we were at Victoria Falls during the rains we were continuously soaked by spray, but as the nearby hotel was still the holiday destination of many pretty Rhodesian girls, life had its compensations.

Recruiting safari

Perhaps the highlight of this period was when C Company was chosen to carry out a recruiting safari along the banks of the Upper Zambezi in Barotseland. We marched from village to village, usually in the early morning while it was still cool. We then rested all day and smartened ourselves up for a parade in the late afternoon when we beat Retreat and gave an exhibition of drill. This was followed by a party given by the villagers to mark the occasion, and we enlisted the men pre-selected by the village headmen, most of whom were themselves retired NCOs from the regiment anyway. We then presented those selected with a pair of boots and the King’s shilling which ritual meant that they were deemed to have enlisted.

Life at Lusaka also had its amusing side. The RSM of the depot was called Chisengwalumbe, a charming old man with over thirty years service in the regiment. When I was appointed Battalion Intelligence Officer and Assistant Adjutant I got to know the old boy well. He had seen smarter days but when one evening he appeared on Retreat parade in wellington boots, it was decided that he ought to be retired. He was given a magnificent Zebu bull as his retirement present but sadly, he did not retire immediately. The beast became the bane of my life, for it had to be taken everywhere Chisengwalumbe went, in a three ton truck. Making these necessary transport arrangements was apparently the task of the Assistant Adjutant.

Chisengwalumbe had been in London representing the regiment at the coronation of George VI in 1937. He was the senior RSM in the Empire and was treated as such, with guardsmen and other regimental RSMs sitting to attention as a mark of respect whenever he entered the mess at Chelsea barracks. There was a story that he had given the order “as you were” to a parade of guardsmen at Buckingham Palace on one occasion.

The formal Saturday morning Battalion-parade was practicing a complicated drill movement known as “Advance in Review Order”, which involved the troops advancing a certain number of paces, halting and then presenting arms without any further orders being given. It was, in fact, a practice for His Excellency the Governor’s Sovereign’s Parade.

I was in charge of the parade being watched by the Colonel and our European RSM, a Coldstream guardsman called Weston. On the command being given 600 men set off audibly counting their paces as they went. They arrived, halted and presented arms. So far so good and the band struck up. Suddenly, all hell broke loose as a large bush-buck appeared out of the long grass surrounding the parade ground on one side, galloped across in front of the parade and bolted into the long grass opposite. The whole parade gave chase, shouting “Nyama” (Meat) and throwing their rifles down as they went, leaving myself, an apoplectic RSM and the Colonel as the only three standing fast. In seconds the parade ground was deserted and had the appearance of a military disaster with abandoned rifles and kit everywhere.

My batman, a member of the Bemba tribe lived as far from the sea as was possible in Africa, sat on a bollard alongside the ship and asked me “Where do we go from here?” I replied in Chinyanja that we were going in this large ‘canoe’. The reply came, “Who do you think you’re kidding, that canoe won’t float: it is made of iron and is sitting on the bottom. That is a factory”. Eventually we were all safely aboard and set sail for Diego Suarez in Madagascar. Our task there was to take over from 121 Force, thus allowing them to take part in freeing the rest of the island before going on to Burma.


Altogether I was based in Madagascar for over two years. Firstly with 27 Brigade Headquarters, then … I was transferred to the Staff as G3 Intelligence at Island Area Headquarters at Joffreville on the edge of the rain forest. Our command included Madagascar, the Comoros, Diego Garcia, Seychelles, Mauritius and Reunion. My main task was preparing the data for descriptive, statistical, geographical and military information volumes for each of these places.

While I was there we were given the service of the Mauritius Regiment to enhance the garrison. They promptly mutinied because they had enlisted only to defend Mauritius, whereas the War Office interpretation of that was that they were defending their island by being stationed in Madagascar.

[One] mission was to try and establish whether there was any link between the Mauritius Regiment mutiny and the pro-Japanese Indian National Army

I was also involved in cracking the illegal dhow trade in the Gulf of Aden. Petrol for the Army was transported as deck cargo in drums by dhows based in Aden. These dhows were owned and operated by a man called Antoine Besse, a Lebonese trader who was also the Shell Company agent in the area. He also ran most of the rackets and milked HM Government out of many hundreds of thousands of pounds.

One scheme was to transport petrol to Addis Ababa by rail tankers from Djibouti. That was perfectly legal and the British Government also paid him for the transport and return of the empty tank cars to the port. But, as Besse also owned the brewery at Addis he filled the tanks with beer for the return trip and then sold it to the British troops. Another ploy of his was to contract to carry petrol from Djibouti to Berbera in forty gallon drums as deck cargo on his fleet of coastal dhows. He would then claim that, owing to encountering a storm, the cargo had been lost overboard. We knew that the same cargo had been run across the Red Sea narrows and sold on the black market in Yemen.

We never managed to prove anything, so Antoine Besse lived out his life as an ostensibly upright citizen. He even donated enough money to found a college at Oxford after the war…

Meeting my wife

For me the best thing about being posted to Somaliland was that I met my future wife, Bobbie there. She was the Brigadier’s secretary and also helped me with my own office work. As there were only three female army clerks on the station and some 100-plus male Europeans there I considered myself lucky to have been chosen by her…

The Brigadier, Andy Anderson of the Cameronians took a keen interest in the burgeoning romance between his Secretary and his Intelligence Officer. He lent us his staff car to do our courting in and did everything he could to help us. Bobbie left … on leave to Kenya while I was remained behind. One morning Brigadier Anderson came into my office and told me to pack a suitcase and he would run me to the airstrip. On the way in his car he admitted that his mail that morning had contained orders for me to return to the UK after 5 years overseas service, via Aden. But, if I went on the flight to Nairobi then Bobbie and I could get married and go home via Mombasa.

He later told GHQ that, regrettably, I had already left that very morning for leave in Kenya. On arrival in Nairobi [after marriage] we booked into the Norfolk Hotel to await orders to leave for the UK. At first the management were sceptical about our claim to be married because our ration cards were in the names of Captain Macleod and Corporal Tweedie, but when they saw the account of our wedding in the paper, they sent us up a bottle of champagne with their compliments.

Because of the Emergency, many young European Kenyans were called up through the Kenya Regiment … Other Europeans stayed at their civilian work but joined the Kenya Police Reserve in order to help part time if required.

Initially that is what I did too, but after my quick trip to Britain for the coronation, it began to look as if my previous experience in intelligence might be useful. I therefore joined the regular force as the Inspector in charge of the Special Branch at Kitale in late 1953.

By the following Easter all the Kikuyu in Kitale district had been screened, putting a few in jail but repatriating the majority to their home district. We built up a picture of when, where and by whom they had been initiated into Mau Mau. Using the same intelligence and interrogating techniques I had learnt as Area Intelligence Officer in Bremen, I also managed to intercept an armed party of Kikuyu from Uganda on their way home to Kikuyuland to join the forest terrorists. This minor triumph had resulted in a short gunfight in the forest on Mount Elgon near Kitale and the later conviction of three harmless looking men for being in a prohibited area, which was a capital offence.

Since all our suspects were Mau Mau oathed Kikuyu, initial interrogations were conducted in Kikuyu until the suspect had committed himself to so-operate with the team when, usually much to his surprise, he realised that we Europeans also formed part of the team. The system worked well and eventually resulted in a clear picture of Mau Mau activity in many locations in Kikuyuland.

This question of committing oneself is an important part of the Kikuyu psyche. They are a superstitious tribe. The Mau Mau oath was based on a firm commitment backed with a death sentence for non-compliance. The oaths taken were along the lines of “If I do (or don’t do) so and so … may this oath kill me.” Most who took the oath firmly believed that it would. Thus, when we succeeded, as we always did, in persuading the suspect that although he had admitted taking the Mau Mau oath, he was still alive and that we had no intention of killing him, one could literally observe a mental burden being lifted from his shoulders. He would then quite happily co-operate and truthfully tell you anything you might ask him. It was a simple and immediate complete transfer of loyalty.

The British Army tended to look upon operations against the Mau Mau as training exercises. Their lack of both jungle experience and local knowledge made them of but limited effectiveness.

Indeed one British Battalion ambushed and shot dead its own Colonel simply through being jittery and ‘trigger happy’ … I well remember an occasion when one famous Regiment insisted that our local forces be excluded from an isolated area of forest so that they could carry out a ‘Sweep’. They duly reported that there were no gangs in the area.

When we went back in later that night, we found over 30 terrorists who told us that they had spent the day up in the trees watching the soldiers below.

Forest terrorists

We found that the best way for us to contact the forest terrorists was to masquerade as terrorists ourselves. We therefore developed the concept of pseudo-gangs. This meant dressing as the terrorists did in ragged clothes and skins and not washing for days, for those living in the forest had so developed their sense of smell so as to recognise even the faint scent of soap. The Europeans wore Negroid wigs, made out of mops, and blackened their faces with boot polish. We stayed in the background thus allowing African fluent Kikuyu speakers to appear to lead our pseudo-gangs.

Everyone must eat and drink. In many instances this gave us the key to contacting the real gangs. They were in the habit of setting snares for small game and visiting them regularly in search of food. We used them therefore to site ambushes along their snare-line and quietly overpower whichever gang member came to check them.

Sometimes we found ourselves at odds with the police. If we were to persuade forest terrorists to trust us, surrender and work with us, we had to find ways of clandestinely re-introducing them to civilian life outside the forests. Merely having been in the forest was a capital offence so that our first task was to shield them from the attentions of our own colleagues … We had to keep faith with those that trusted us.

Sometimes we reported these former terrorists as having been ‘killed’ after we had given them a new identity…

On other occasions … we found ourselves acting unlawfully with the tacit approval of the authorities in the District. Once we even ‘ambushed’ a visiting left-wing MP’s party from the UK, who had expressed the opinion that the dangers from Mau Mau were grossly exaggerated. The party was in no danger, but being a pacifist and never having been under fire before, a few rounds directed over the visitors’ heads effected their headlong return to Nairobi. There was less talk of exaggeration from the MP concerned after that.

The CID spent at least some of their time closely monitoring us. On more than one occasion I was asked whether a man we had reported as being killed had been legally killed. My stock reply was to give them a map reference deep in the forest and tell them to go and see. They never did so.

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